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Warren’s rivals chafe at her sudden ascent

Harvard professor untested on trail

Alan Khazei could be Elizabeth Warren’s biggest Democratic rival, since he has experience and funds. He ran for the seat two years ago, coming in third in the Democratic field. Alan Khazei could be Elizabeth Warren’s biggest Democratic rival, since he has experience and funds. He ran for the seat two years ago, coming in third in the Democratic field. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / September 17, 2011

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Elizabeth Warren had no sooner entered the crowded Senate race this week than she was widely viewed as the clear front-runner to challenge Republican incumbent Scott Brown next year.

But even as she has exploded onto the scene amidst huge media attention, Warren is far from a proven commodity on the campaign trail, and she faces five other candidates determined that they, too, can win.

Some, like Alan Khazei, the founder of the City Year youth volunteer program, have the experience and the cash to back up that hope.

Khazei ran two years ago in the special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy, coming in third in the Democratic field.

He has been campaigning avidly since this spring, has raised $1 million, and worked to position himself as Brown’s most credible foe.

But Khazei is also realistic.

“She is the front-runner; I am the underdog, no doubt about it,’’ Khazei said in an interview yesterday.

The consensus among some political insiders is that, though he has hurdles to clear, Khazei is most likely to emerge as Warren’s major rival, given his deep campaign pockets and his background in grass-roots organizing.

“He can have fun running a guerilla-style campaign against the Elizabeth Warren regular army,’’ said Democratic media consultant Dan Payne, adding that Warren has been embraced by the party’s establishment and liberal interest groups.

Five other Democrats have announced their plans to seek their party’s nomination: Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton; state Representative Thomas P. Conroy of Wayland; Bob Massie of Somerville, the 1994 nominee for lieutenant governor; Herb Robinson, a Newton engineer; and Marisa DeFranco, a Salem lawyer.

One advantage Khazei and the others have over Warren is a low bar. “Expectations for her are towering,’’ Payne said. “And they’re modest to nonexistent for the rest of the field.’’

Khazei seems very willing to play into those dynamics, portraying himself as a candidate who does not need to rely on the traditional power centers of the Democratic Party to be a strong candidate.

“I am not going to be their candidate,’’ Khazei said yesterday. “I am not their profile. The party insiders in Washington don’t have a great track record. Ultimately, the voters decide, and that’s who I am going after.’’

Emphasizing that point, Khazei challenged Warren Thursday to reject money from lobbyists and political action committees, both of which are major sources of cash for Republicans and Democrats alike. It was a challenge the Warren campaign promptly declined.

Others in the race also seem similarly determined not to let Warren’s presence deter them, even as it redefines the race, casting a shadow on their campaigns.

“I am sure she will generate some serious interest,’’ Massie said. “We will just have to see how it plays out. But having her make her decision has clarified things.’’

Conroy insisted it was far too soon to judge what course the newly formed race will take. “We have a long way to go,’’ he said. “It is an entire year to the primary. Politics is very unpredictable.’’

A spokesman for Setti Warren said he is focusing on working the Democratic grass roots. “We’re not frustrated about it,’’ said Chuck Gilboy.

Beyond the challenge posed by her Democratic rivals, Elizabeth Warren will have to prove she can adapt to the demands of the campaign trail.

Though she has given polished performances on national television talk shows pushing for tougher rules for the nation’s financial institutions and seemed to connect with voters in her first few days on the campaign trail, she also showed signs of inexperience.

At several stops, as she campaigned this week, she was pressed to take positions, but fell back on her general refrain that she has joined the race to fight for the middle class and against the policies she believes are destroying it.

Appearing as a guest on WTKK-FM radio, Warren faced a tough question from cohost Jim Braude: How does she feel about her former boss, President Obama, picking the chief executive of General Electric to chair his jobs council, given that she attacked the company in her campaign announcement video for using loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

Warren avoided answering Braude and instead talked about the loopholes.

Nor did she take a position late in the week on the president’s job bill, when questioned by a television reporter. Braude, who generally takes liberal positions, said her weak responses raise red flags about her candidacy.

“Warren made it clear in the first few days that it can be a long way from the classroom to the T stop,’’ he said, referring to her move from Harvard Law School where she is a professor to the Broadway T stop where she launched her campaign on Wednesday. “If she wants to maintain her front-runner status, she has to learn to answer direct questions. She doesn’t seem to be doing much of that in these early stages.’’

Warren’s senior political adviser, Doug Rubin, dismissed that criticism, arguing that she responded to the issue the question was driving at.

“If you want to make the case, you can twist the words any way you want,’’ he said. “That is modern American politics.’’

“We know the expectations are very high and there are plenty of people who will want to take shots at her,’’ Rubin said. “She is doing exactly what she should do, go around the state and talk to people and build a grass-roots organization that can win.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.